Commemorating Chilwell Shell Explosion

Members of the the Beeston and District Civic Society, the Beeston and District Local History Society, the Stapleford and District Local History Society, the Bramcote Conservation Society and the Bramcote History Group joined senior officers from Chetwynd Barracks and the Deputy Mayor, first at St. Mary’s Church Attenborough and then at Orchard Cottage in Chilwell.

Many of the 139 munitions workers are buried in the graveyard at St. Mary’s, their remains being unidentifiable in the explosion which happened on July 1st 1918. The blue plaque commemorates the explosion and the resting place of so many people who worked at the Chilwell depot supplying shells during the First World War.

250 people were injured in the explosion and the second plaque at Orchard Cottage recognises the survivors at the oldest property near to where the depot was sited. Orchard Cottage was the home of the Chief Engineer, Albert Hall and its present owners Dr Jim and Susan Jeffrey were good enough to invite everyone into their home and garden.

“Quite simply the nature of Chilwell was changed utterly from the second half of 1915 by the sudden appearance of what at the time was known as the No.6 Shell Filling Factory; the creation of Godfrey John Boyle, the 8th Viscount Chetwynd, acting under the instructions of Lloyd George. About half of the rural estate largely owned by the Charlton family for nearly 300 years was changed overnight into a dangerous industrial site in the front line of essential war work. Shell filling began in March 1916. By the end of the war Chilwell had made a decisive contribution to the war effort and, particularly, by supplying the Western Front with a reliable and continuous supply of shells.

This dramatic change from fields to factory was underlined by a series of incidents, the most serious of which was the catastrophic explosion on the evening of 1 July 1918 when 139 people died, including young women factory workers, the so-called ‘canary girls’ arising from the effects of handling toxic material.  The factory was known after WW1 as ‘the VC Factory’ and subsequently became the Army Ordnance Depot in WW2. It survives in part to this day as Chetwynd Barracks. There are two main references: Captain J Haslam, The Chilwell Story, published by the RAOC Gazette, 1982 and 2005; and Maureen Rushton, The Canary Girls of Chilwell, published by Beeston and District Local History Society, 2008. Both refer to 134 deaths, now known from further original research by Alan Dance to be 139.

Albert Hall, Chief Engineer of the Shell Filling Factory, lived at Orchard Cottage on Chetwynd Road – badly damaged by the explosion.”